June 14, 2006 4:06 AM | trevorw
['Compilation Catalog' is a biweekly analysis of retro remakes and compilations old and new. This entry's subject is Space Invaders Pocket, released in Japan in 2005 for the PSP.]
The PSP has proved to be fertile territory for retro-collections, beginning right with its Japanese launch (with Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower). Taito was quick to follow up with repackaged versions of its own efforts, beginning with the Japan-only Space Invaders Pocket. Not to be confused with the later PSP remake Space Invaders Galaxy Beat (by Marvelous Entertainment), SI Pocket includes emulations and ports of eight of the venerable series' iterations, though it's debatable whether several of the titles are really unique entries.
Space Invaders' Background
If you're familiar with console or arcade video games at all, you probably know what's going on here: neatly-arranged rows of alien invaders march across and down the screen (with that inexorable TROMP, TROMP cadence) toward Earth, while the player controls a single ship on the surface that fires back up at them. Space Invaders created a genre and was singlehandedly responsible for arcades' explosion of popularity around the world. The original Space Invaders is present here in its Black & White, Cellophane, Upright, and Color versions, each of which applied slightly different presentations to exactly the same game. SI Cellophane (1978) literally used strips of colored cellophane superimposed on the monitor to lend the illusion of color to the graphics of the original SI Black & White (1978). SI Upright (1978), which moved the game into an upright cabinet from the original's "marquee"-style tabletop cabinet, turned the player's ship and the shelters green and placed a static background of a planet behind the action.
Invadin' The '70s And '80s
Space Invaders Color (again, 1978) was the first time the game was released in full color, though the trick the developers used to turn each row of enemies a certain color looks an awful lot like the bands of cellophane used earlier, as a given row on the screen always turns the objects inside it the same color. Space Invaders Part II (1980) gives the illusion of being a true sequel, but it really just added a new type of UFO, made some invaders split into two when hit, and caused UFOs in stages past the first to drop invader reinforcements.
Return of the Invaders (1985) was the first proper sequel the series received, and it really pulled out all the stops. Developed by (but not credited to) those masters of the bizarre at UPL, it took the basic single-screen shooty formula and added detailed full-color graphics, varied enemy formations and movements, intricate and truly alien invader designs, and new gameplay mechanics. For instance, the ever-present shelters that the player can duck behind now have a tiny murder-hole that can be opened up by a few shots from the player's cannon, while the rest of the shelter stays intact (until it takes enough damage to self-destruct). Plus, by destroying all but a single type of enemy on a stage, the player can trigger a "challenging stage" in which the remaining invaders combine into a large boss enemy that rains destruction on the player and can be destroyed for a tasty score bonus.
When hit, some enemies fly off into space and arc gradually toward the ground, and the close to the ground these are shot, the higher the bonus the player receives. Return is more difficulty and much tricksier than its predecessors, too, especially with a certain enemy whose core is its only vulnerable point - hitting it elsewhere will cause the player's shot to be reflected back after a cleverly-timed pause. With its looping and pulsating enemy formations, spacey-sounding music, and higher rate of fire, Return retains a much fresher, dynamic feel than the stodgy-to-some original does, these days.
Invadin' The '90s!
Majestic Twelve: The Space Invaders Part IV (1990) mixed things up again, adding powerups, new bonus stages and enemies, and a new level branching level flow reminiscent of Darius, Taito's other popular shooting series. In fact, much of Majestic Twelve's look and presentation should feel familiar to anyone who's played other Taito games from the era, as it shared programmers, artists, and composers with several Darius games and the cult-classic shooter Metal Black. As in Return, there are many and varied new types of invaders, and each stage in the game has its own indigenous and nicely-animated invaders (and bosses).
The powerups new to this game include one that adds a faster rate of fire, one that stops the marching of the invaders momentarily, and one that summons the series' traditional shelters (which aren't present initially in this game). Plus, there are several powerups that grant super-powerful weapons that can destroy many invaders at a time and are activated with a second fire button. Between stages, the player encounters the amusing "Cattle Mutilation" bonus stages, in which the player defends a green pasture full of unwitting cows against flying saucers bent on abducting them. Majestic Twelve does go a bit easier on the player than previous Invaders, and the powerups make it one of the more forgiving games in the series. It's also pleasing to the eye, even today, despite the typically washed-out color palette its hardware sported.
The last game in the package is the most colorful of the all: Akkanvader (1995), better known in the US as "Space Invaders '95: The Attack of the Lunar Loonies" is bright and well-animated with sprites that are gigantic when compared with the rest of the series. It's truly a "cute-'em-up," and with its wacky-cartoony style, large cast of playable characters, and the way it lampoons series conventions, it is to Space Invaders as Konami's Parodius is to Gradius. Guest-starring here are two Silver Hawk ships from the Darius series, Sayo from the Pocky & Rocky games and a friend, a stray cat and dog, and two sentient, uh, dollops of excrement, one pink and one blue.
As in Majestic Twelve there are powerups to be collected, and a new charge shot has been added. But Akkanvader moves beyond the single-screen nature of the rest of the series and is a true vertically-scrolling shooter, with proper level layouts and bosses. And even though it was released eleven years ago (and counting), it's as fresh and attractive as any modern 2D game, and a fitting send-off to the series' original run in arcades.
Overall Emulation Impressions?
Each game included in this collection is pixel-perfect in its presentation. The games up to and including Return of the Invaders seem to be emulated, as they retain their coin-operated nature (press the PSP's select button to drop in more credits). Majestic Twelve and Akkanvader lack an explicit credit-feeding button leading one to believe that they were ported instead of emulated. As Return, Majestic Twelve, and Akkanvader are all vertically-oriented games with lengthwise resolutions that exceed the PSP's vertical resolution, they can be viewed in either cropped or rotated modes. The rotated (or "tate") mode in each game can be activated by pressing L and R together. With one's left thumb on the control pad at the bottom of a left-rotated PSP and one's right thumb on the X button at the top, this is not an altogether uncomfortable arrangement, and allows the entire original picture in each of these games to be viewed as it was intended.
Each game has an options menu for setting difficulty, scores for play extends, number of lives, and so forth, and in the front-end menu there's a brief description of each game (in Japanese, of course). The first of each pair (!) of loading screens features a rotating selection of silly illustrations of the titular Invaders involved in everyday activities like singing karaoke, heading off to work, playing arcade games, and so on.
There are some technical problems with the collection, however. When starting any given game from the main menu, a player can expect to sit through various loading screens that last fifteen seconds or more (Akkanvader takes a full thirty seconds). And returning to the main menu can take just as long, giving you double the wait when switching games. This is a relatively early PSP release, and there was indeed much hubbub about the long loading in UMD-based games back then, but this is a little ridiculous. Plus, Akkanvader sports some heavy slowdown when compared with the original, and it pauses for a half-second to several seconds whenever the background music changes (as it seems to be streamed off the UMD).
Most fans of the original would surely be content with a single, definitive version of the original game (Color, perhaps), so for how much longer will Taito continue to repackage all of those revisions of the original as distinct games? And while Return of the Invaders is an eternal classic in this writer's view (and Majestic Twelve very nearly reaches that level), and while the excellent Akkanvader has only recently made it home outside of this collection (in Taito Legends 2 and Taito Memories 2), it's debatable whether this package is worth its roughly-$50 asking price.
[Trevor Wilson is a web developer who indulges his unhealthy obsession with obscure, strange, and unique video games over at his weblog, namako team.]
Categories: Column: Compilation Catalog